Tilton's talented tandem ready to continue connecting at UConn

Updated: March 11, 2009

Les Bentley for ESPN.com

Alex Oriakhi, left, and Jamal Coombs-McDaniel comprise UConn's entire 2009 recruiting class.

Teammates Oriakhi, Coombs-McDaniel Have Taken Different Routes To Stardom

It's 7 a.m. on a cold winter morning and two of New England's best basketball players are getting ready for another long day.

For the next 16 hours, seniors Alex Oriakhi and Jamal Coombs-McDaniel, Massachusetts natives playing at New Hampshire's Tilton School, will go through a rigorous schedule planned nearly to the minute.

From the time school starts at 8 a.m. until lights out at 11 p.m., the day is filled with classes, practice, weightlifting and mandatory study hall. When they get a free minute, these roommates and best friends will fight over PS3 or get a glimpse of their future by watching college ball on TV.

"They're like brothers," fourth-year Tilton coach Marcus O'Neil says.

The 6-foot-9, 240-pound Oriakhi is rated the nation's No. 19 recruit in the ESPNU 100, while the 6-foot-7, 215-pound Coombs-McDaniel checks in at No. 32. They've been committed to UConn for nearly three years, since before they first joined forces at Winchendon while still playing in Massachusetts.

Both players had bounced from school to school before finding a home at Tilton as juniors. Already known as two of the region's premier players, they flourished last year, leading Tilton to the NEPSAC Class B title.

Oriakhi averaged 18 points, 12 rebounds and four blocks per game, while Coombs-McDaniel went for 24 points, nine boards and three dimes per contest.

Inseparable for the last three years, they each have their own style of play -- the defensive-minded Oriakhi dominating down low, the versatile Coombs-McDaniel aggressively driving to the basket -- and distinct paths brought them together.

When Coombs-McDaniel was living in Roxbury as an eighth-grader, his cousin's older brother, who lived just a floor below him, was murdered.

"That was the turning point for myself and his mother when we said, 'We've gotta get out of here,'" Jamal's father, Pernell McDaniel, says.

The family moved to Dorchester, but that wasn't much safer. So when AAU coaches broached the idea of a prep school, Pernell and his wife, Sonya Coombs, were ready to listen. Once they realized scholarships and financial aid could take care of the hefty tuition (north of $40,000 these days), Coombs-McDaniel was off. He spent a year at Lawrence Academy, then went to Winchendon as a sophomore before ending up at Tilton.

Pernell and Sonya haven't regretted the decision for a minute.

"When he's at school and not home, I can sleep well at night," Pernell says.

Oriakhi doesn't have quite as dramatic a tale. The Lowell native went the prep school route because his AAU coach thought it would help him get ready for college -- both academically and athletically. With his parents on board, Oriakhi spent his freshman year at Brooks, then met up with Coombs-McDaniel at Winchendon and hasn't looked back.

Before the dynamic duo stepped foot on Tilton's campus, O'Neil knew he was getting a couple of superstars. He had seen Oriakhi in various local tournaments and had faced Coombs-McDaniel in NEPSAC play two years prior, so he realized a pair of program-changing athletes was on the way.

"Alex looked like a monster in the making," O'Neil says. "And Jamal was a take-charge kind of guy. He's the type of kid who willed your team to victory."

With a couple years of prep school experience behind them, there was none of the culture shock that often accompanies a move from the city to middle-of-nowhere New Hampshire.

"They were comfortable with everything that was expected of them and were able to hit the ground running," O'Neil says.

And as always, they motivated each other. They're both fierce competitors, and the thought of falling behind the other kept each in the gym and weight room when they might have preferred to be sleeping or playing video games.

Their pick-up battles became legendary for their intensity.

"There's probably not one possession where we don't foul each other," Coombs-McDaniel says.

Oriakhi has a more one-sided take on that: "He fouls the hell out of me every time I get the ball down low," the big man says.

Once the games end, the fighting stops. But lessons have been learned. Oriakhi, a power forward, has become quicker and a better outside shooter thanks to all the time spent on the perimeter guarding his teammate. And Coombs-McDaniel, a small forward, has become tougher and stronger as a result of banging in the paint with Oriakhi.

Then they turn the competitive fire they display against each on their opponents. It doesn't matter if you're facing them at an elite national showcase like the LeBron James Skills Academy or a preseason scrimmage: When the ball goes up, Oriakhi and Coombs-McDaniel are coming to get you.

That was never more evident than in last year's matchup against Winchendon. Feeling they should have gotten more playing time at their former school as sophomores, Oriakhi and Coombs-McDaniel played as if they had something to prove.

Four quarters and 64 points later, their point was made.

Coombs-McDaniel scored a game-high 33 points to go along with eight rebounds, while Oriakhi added 31 points, 12 boards and four blocks in an 82-76 triumph. "The thing that separates them is that they live for those games," O'Neil says.

Even though their high school careers are winding down, the journey is just beginning. Next year, Oriakhi and Coombs-McDaniel will stay in New England and play at UConn. They raised some eyebrows when they committed before starting their sophomore years -- the youngest players in Jim Calhoun's tenure to do so -- but their pledges have stayed firm.

With the long-awaited trip to Storrs rapidly approaching, Oriakhi and Coombs-McDaniel are looking to the future. As they sit in their room and talk between games of NBA Live or ESPN doubleheaders, they dream about starring for the Huskies and possibly collecting NBA paychecks after that.

Pretty soon the PS3 and TV will be shut off and the lights will go out. Because 7 a.m. is right around the corner and another full day of work awaits.

Ryan Canner-O'Mealy writes for ESPN RISE magazine and ESPNRISE.com.


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Cousins Picks Memphis

DeMarcus Cousins' recent decision to attend Memphis will give the Tigers a game-changing post player for the 2009-10 season. Cousins (Mobile, Ala./LeFlore) is the top center prospect in the 2009 class and the No. 4 prospect overall.

With Cousins, coach John Calipari's recruiting class, which also includes the nation's top prospect Xavier Henry (Oklahoma City/Putnam City) is among the most talented in the nation. Cousins' commitment serves as further proof of John Calipari's ability to recruit with the best of them.

In terms of sheer talent, Cousins has all the tools to be a great player at the college level. In fact, USC commit Renardo Sidney (Los Angeles/Fairfax) is the only other big man with this type of versatility in the 2009 recruiting class. The 6-foot-9, 250-pound center has broad shoulders, long arms and soft hands. He possesses the skills of a small forward in a center's body; Cousins has demonstrated the ability to score from anywhere on the floor. His offensive dominance begins in the low post. He has a strong frame and when he is committed to receiving catches near the basket he becomes almost unstoppable. He has soft touch and good instincts when playing on the low blocks. His go-to move with his back to the basket is on the right block, where he likes to ball-fake middle and spin baseline to his right hand. What makes him special is in his ability to pass the ball, especially out of the post against double-teams. He displays poise and patience, which is unique for a young big man.

• Click here to read the full story

Memphis Commit DeMarcus Cousins

Selby, Hibbert Carry DeMatha Legacy


They entered the DeMatha (Hyattsville, Md.) gymnasium with no previous connection to the hundreds of names adorning the walls.

Those of former NBA players Sidney Lowe, Danny Ferry and Adrian Dantley and current NBA swingman Keith Bogans stood out. Here were their predecessors, athletes who had helped bring DeMatha considerable notoriety over the years. After taking it all in, Naji Hibbert and Josh Selby stepped onto the court ready to embrace all of the history and prestige that come with donning the Stags' uniform. Two Baltimore boys had found a new home.

"It was definitely a great feeling putting on that jersey," says Hibbert. "They have banners for the championships they have won," adds Selby. "I just took it as I have to put one up there too."

The Tennessee-bound Selby, a 6-foot-3, 188-pound combo guard, is rated the nation's No. 17 junior in the ESPNU Super 60, while Hibbert, a 6-foot-6, 200-pound wing and Texas A&M recruit, is the No. 61 senior in the ESPNU 100. When the star duo transferred to DeMatha in the summer of 2007, it was a reunion of sorts for the Baltimore-bred ballers.

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On The Trail

Wilson heading to Eugene

ESPNU 100 small forward Jamil Wilson committed to Oregon and head coach Ernie Kent at a news conference Sunday. Wilson, No. 62 overall in the ESPNU 100, had narrowed his choices to Oregon, Texas and Marquette. He joins E.J. Singler and junior college forward Jeremy Jacob in the Ducks' 2009 class.

ESPN.com National Recruiting Director Paul Biancardi talks about the potential of this superior wing player.

"Jamil is a 6-7 wing forward that is skilled, long and athletic," Biancardi said. "He is a top-100 player in the 2009 class and one of the top wing forwards in the class. He can play either forward position but is more comfortable at the 3 right now.

"He can handle the ball and shoot it with range to 20 feet."

Wilson must work on bringing his intensity and effort on a more consistent basis at the next level.

"He'll need to improve his consistency and become more assertive," Biancardi offered. "He is very good and very talented but sometimes he disappears and can play a little soft. He was hindered by an injury last summer but has stepped up more this year and will hopefully continue that effort moving into the Pac-10."

When he arrives in Eugene next season, the skill and talent is there for him to become a factor early.

• Wilson's On The Trail archive

Wake picks up a talented import

According to multiple sources, 6-foot-6 shooting guard Torgrim Sommerfeldt, a native of Norway, verbally committed to Wake Forest this week. Sommerfeldt burst on to the scene last summer playing for Norway at the Nike Hoop Summit in Portland, Ore.

He joins ESPNU 100 small forward Ari Stewart (Marietta, Ga./Wheeler) and point guard C.J. Harris (Winston-Salem, N.C./Mount Tabor) in the Demon Deacons' 2009 class.

ESPN.com's Reggie Rankin has the goods on this European sharpshooter.

"Torgrim is an excellent shooter off the catch with great size and a quick trigger," Rankin said. "He can knock down 3s by sprinting the floor in transition, ball-reversal spot-ups, post kickouts, coming off screens and busting the zone.

• Sommerfeldt's On The Trail archive
• Complete On The Trail updates